If you had predicted the St. Louis Blues would be Stanley Cup contenders back in December, you’d have been laughed off the internet. So as we go through a list of teams in position to possibly rise as a contender over the next three years, keep that in mind.
For this exercise we wanted to focus on teams who aren’t there as a contender yet, but have the pieces in place or the flexibility to take a great stride forward in the near future. Parity is the name of the game in the NHL today and we’ve seen some teams take wild swings from one end of the standings to the other in short order, and sometimes — like this season — in a single stretch of 82 games. Of course, that means any team that isn’t currently considered a contender could earn that distinction, but we are doing our best to identify the ones with the most optimistic outlook.
Five of the six teams listed below didn’t make the playoffs this season and not all of them will likely even make it next season. Some of these teams could rise as early as 2019-20, while other may take the full three years to get there.
They have one of the best players in the world with Nathan MacKinnon, who is behind only Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov in points per game average (1.26) over the past two years. But the best thing about MacKinnon may be his steal of a cap hit, which is just $6.3 million for the next four seasons. Right now, that is the 68th-highest cap hit in the league and will surely fall more this summer. And that’s just the start of Colorado’s case.
The biggest piece of business this summer is to re-sign Mikko Rantanen, who is coming off a career year and is part of this loaded RFA class. On one hand he could use the leverage of the market around him to push for $9 million or more, but on the other that MacKinnon contract could help set a frame work given the salary structure of the team.
Go back 20 months and we’re looking at this Avalanche team very differently. Matt Duchene is still on the roster and Joe Sakic is trying to trade him, but it’s taking a while and looking like a losing proposition for the team. The defence is a huge question mark and weakness, even after drafting Cale Makar fourth overall because he’s not coming to the league right away.
But today that blue line is an organizational strength and, arguably, deeper in talent than the forward group.
Sam Girard came back in the Duchene trade and in two years has emerged as a strong skater, good puck mover and someone the Avs are excited to have in their top four moving forward. Makar arrived for the playoffs and had a terrific showing that has most thinking he’ll be next year’s Miro Heiskanen. Erik Johnson is signed for another four years and is the minute-eating veteran who is a more secure defensive presence. Tyson Barrie had his best NHL season in 2018-19 and it would be terrific to retain him, but the improving situation on defence opens up the possibility Sakic could sell high on Barrie to help the forward situation.
And the Avs seem to have found their goalie to move forward with as well. Philipp Grubauer was one of the league’s best backup netminders for three years in Washington before Colorado acquired him via trade for a second-round pick in 2018. And though he didn’t start off all that well with the Avs, he finished strong, took the No. 1 job decisively from Semyon Varlamov, and is on the books for a bargain $3.3 million for another two seasons.
So Colorado has a good base everywhere in the lineup and have already made two playoff appearances and won a round with it. But what sets them apart is how the bargain contracts on the books give them better flexibility to address roster weaknesses.
“It’s a pretty good class this year,” Sakic said of the 2019 UFA class. “Already have target players in mind, if they become available, that we’re going to want to talk to about joining our club. We see some positions of need… we’ll be more aggressive this year with that.”
Plus, they hold two first-round picks this summer: the fourth overall and their own at 16. When one or both of those players arrive in the next one to three years that will be another cheap entry-level deal or two potentially providing a healthy diet of depth production. And again, that 16th pick could be used in trade to help right away.
This is another GM who’s seen the perception around him radically change over the past year. The negativity surrounding Marc Bergevin really started with the P.K. Subban trade in 2016 and snowballed with the handling of Max Pacioretty, who was finally dealt in September following a full season of speculation.
At the time, the direction of the Canadiens was very unclear. Following two division titles and a trip to the conference final in Bergevin’s first three years at the helm, the Habs seemed to be taking a distinct step back from the outset of the Subban trade and have missed the post-season three out of the past four years. But now that outlook is starting to become a little more focused and though their route to contending isn’t as obvious as Colorado’s and may be more arduous given the division they’re in, Montreal could be tracking to get there in a few more seasons.
Without a big-money, star forward it really all hinges on Carey Price, whose $10.5-million AAV dictates he be the crux of Montreal’s push back to contender status. Between the soon-to-be 32-year-old Price and 34-year-old Weber combining for $18.357 million, the Habs’ cap picture isn’t as pretty as Colorado’s, but it’s still very manageable. And there could be a better collection of young players here than previously assumed, which makes the cap potentially even less of a concern.
We won’t predict that Ryan Poehling will keep up his 246-goal pace following a hat trick debut that closed out the regular season, but that was one heck of a start for a player named the WJC’s best forward this past winter. Between Poehling, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi the Habs look to have the centre depth they’ve been craving under Bergevin, not to mention Max Domi, who had a career-best 28 goals and 72 points at the position this season.
Alexander ‘The Czar’ Romanov was named the best defenceman at this year’s WJC and his stock has sky-rocketed since being a second-round pick last summer. Victor Mete averaged nearly 20 minutes per game in the final two and a half months and will likely cross that mark before long. He and 22-year-old Noah Juulsen only have one more year until their ELCs expire, but defencemen generally get bridge contracts on their second deals and neither should carry an unmanageable cost for a while.
The big questions over the next few years are what Domi (RFA next summer) and Brendan Gallagher (UFA in 2021) will cost on their next extensions. Gallagher will be interesting given he has the leverage to leave on his own in two years and is top 10 league-wide in even-strength goals the past two seasons. And if Domi puts up 72 points again as a centre next season, the topic of his next AAV will be a hot one, and the bar for it could be set by this summer’s strong RFA crop.
At this juncture it is very important for Montreal to get production and good minutes from its youngest, cheapest players — the ones who will be on entry-level deals over the next few years. If that comes to fruition, it would give Bergevin freedom to look at moving on from others making $3 million or more (Paul Byron, Andrew Shaw) to shave off some more room.
It’s generally true for all successful teams that they find production from less expensive players, but in Montreal’s case they already have significant money tied up in two ageing players. You can only give out those kinds of cap hits to so many players, and they’ve already used up two of those slots. The possibility of adding Erik Karlsson would make three. But you can see the roadmap is there for Montreal to climb back to being a contender under Bergevin, which would have been laughable even 12 months ago.
When Florida finished the 2017-18 season on a 24-8-2 tear, but just missed the playoffs, it seemed this season may be the one the team turned a corner. But Roberto Luongo got injured in the very first game and goaltending was a problem all season long so they never fully got going.
And yet the Panthers head into the summer full of optimism again. It starts with the addition of Joel Quenneville as head coach, who should bring stability to a position that has employed six different people since 2013. They have a base of two solid centres in Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck, a pair of 30-goal wingers in Mike Hoffman and Jonathan Huberdeau, another 70-point scorer in Evgeni Dadonov, and a couple strong lead blueliners in Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson.
But what really takes them over the top is the potential to land both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin.
Adding Panarin would give GM Dale Tallon the option to use his strength at forward to trade someone like Hoffman (one year away from being a UFA) for a top-four blueliner, and give them a new “best winger” for the top line. Arguably, getting Bobrovsky is more important, since without him it’s hard to see how Florida would get into the contender conversation with a ton of uncertainty in net.
The Panthers’ strength up front looks like it’ll get even stronger in the future even if they don’t get Panarin. Each of their first two picks in 2017 and 2018 are tracking for NHL spots if not next season, then the one after. Owen Tippett nearly made the team out of camp this season and returned to junior where he scored 74 points in 54 games. Aleksi Heponiemi was the second-highest scorer on his Finnish Liiga team and led that league in rookie scoring. He also, along with Panthers 2018 first-rounder Grigori Denisenko, led the WJC with nine points. And Serron Noel specifically was named by Quenneville as a prospect he was excited about when I asked him about the prospects on this team.
For now, their two highest-paid players are defencemen Ekblad ($7.5 million through 2025) and Keith Yandle ($6.35 million through 2023). Huberdeau, Barkov and Trocheck all come in under $6 million for at least the next three seasons. The Atlantic Division figures to be a meat grinder with Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston all set up to be factors already, plus Florida and Montreal (and maybe Detroit and Buffalo?) quickly on the way up.
NEW YORK RANGERS
It was just last season when, heading towards the trade deadline, the New York Rangers sent a letter to their fans that basically threw in the towel on the season and set the table for a rebuild. Now, while there is more work to do than any of the other teams on this list, you can see how this might start coming together rather fast.
The Rangers have made five first-round picks in the past two drafts and have another two to use this summer — their own at No. 2 and Winnipeg’s at 20. They’ll get one of Kaapo Kakko or Jack Hughes with their own and that player will instantly become the best in the pipeline and likely will be a part of next year’s team.
As far as their 2017 picks go, Filip Chytil just completed his first full NHL season with 11 goals and 23 points low in the lineup. Lias Andersson didn’t stick with the big club and has struggled against NHL competition, but at least some of that could be him adjusting to the North American game.
Two defencemen — K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist — were among the three first-rounders last summer and will likely take a little longer to develop, but forward Vitali Kravtsov signed his entry-level deal in May and will be at training camp this fall with a chance to crack the roster. Kravtsov finished as the highest-scoring under-20 player in the KHL last season.
“He came in, I think it was yesterday, he’s gonna be here for the duration, he’s gonna learn the language because he doesn’t speak English that well. I like that,” new team president John Davidson said upon being hired by the Rangers. “He’s gonna come in and work with people that can teach him conditioning, teach him nutrition, there’s a guy that sounds pretty darn committed.”
As a condition in their trade with Dallas, if Mats Zuccarello signs an extension with the Stars the Rangers will pick up their first-rounder in 2020, and leave them with multiple picks in the round for a fourth consecutive year. And this is where the Rangers’ candidacy to contend gets interesting: How many of these picks and prospects could/would they use to acquire experienced NHLers?
Their cap space is wide open. Only Mika Zibanejad and Brady Skjei are signed to post-ELC deals beyond 2020-21 and talk is picking up that the Rangers could start throwing some money around again. They’re among the teams rumoured to be interested in Panarin this summer and have a projected $41 million in room next summer with Chris Kreider as the top player in need of a new contract. They maybe don’t have the star power of Colorado or the settled salary structure of the Panthers, but the Rangers have the closest thing to a blank slate of any team on this list with a solid stable of futures to work it with.
And who’s driving the ship to get them there? GM Jeff Gorton was instrumental in building the Bruins, helping sign Zdeno Chara, draft Brad Marchand and trade for Tuukka Rask as the interim GM before Peter Chiarelli could officially join the club. And Davidson is now the new team president after helping build up a Columbus organization that became a tough out under a budget.
New York will loosen the purse strings a lot more in all areas of the organization and in the hands of these two, the Rangers are going to be one heck of an interesting team to keep an eye on.
I’m doing it. I’m listing the listless Oilers.
Look, when you have arguably the best player in the world who could go off for 120 points or more any given season, you have the potential to rise as a contender. And having Leon Draisaitl as either a 2C or a linemate for Connor McDavid is a great thing, too.
There are certainly issues. Goaltending is one, but given what we saw from the likes of Robin Lehner and Petr Mrazek this season, with a better defensive structure the Oilers could find an affordable UFA goalie who surprises. GM Ken Holland has to clean up some of the wasted cap space and that is the biggest challenge for the team right now.
Dave Tippett behind the bench is a potential game changer. He improved the Dallas Stars by 21 points in his first year with them, and the Coyotes went up 28 points when he first landed there. Tippett should finally bring some needed long-term security to the position in Edmonton, but also has a long history of getting more out of his teams than the roster makeup would suggest was possible.
There is no doubt the Oilers have a lack of scoring support on the wings and need to figure that out. Perhaps Jesse Puljujarvi or Kailer Yamamoto ends up being the answer there, but this should be a realistically acquirable piece of the roster. In the meantime, don’t overpay to keep a career year from someone like Alex Chiasson — search for UFA bargains or small trades to find a player or two potentially capable of playing and producing alongside McDavid and Draisaitl. And, heck, you’ve got the eighth-overall pick this summer that you can either trade for a player, or use to pick someone like Kirby Dach, Peyton Krebs or even USNTDP all-time goal scoring leader Cole Caufield.
And Edmonton’s defence may actually be better than advertised. Oscar Klefbom was one of two Oilers defencemen who was on the ice for more 5-on-5 shots for than against and is still only 25 and two years removed from a healthy, solid season. Andrej Sekera was the other blueliner with positive shot measures and though he’s only played 60 games the past two seasons combined, he did just have a terrific World Championship and a little luck in the health department could see him have a similar late-career, post-injury resurgence that Andrei Markov did with Montreal.
Evan Bouchard is coming and may be a factor as early as next season. Darnell Nurse had a great season at 24 and is still only getting better. The Oilers’ top four could end up being solid, plus Caleb Jones or Ethan Bear could be decent young depth, and OHLer Dmitri Samorukov is coming off his own solid season so he could be a part of this all in a couple years.
The base is there and Tippett should give it a boost, but it all comes down to what Holland does in the GM chair. A fresh set of eyes with all his experience, plus the freedom to do what he needs can inspire confidence that Edmonton could quickly rise back to contender status before long.
If you were to make a list of teams that are the best candidates to make substantial change this summer, the Flyers would be on it. After pushing for patience when he was hired as GM in December, Chuck Fletcher has work to do with pressure from up top to get back into the playoffs. The good thing about his position is he has a lot of options.
Shayne Gostisbehere is the name most often heard on the trade block and although he had a soft season offensively (37 points in 78 games) he was still Philadelphia’s top point producer on the back end. He’s in his prime at 26, though, and has another four years left on a deal with a $4.5-million cap hit. If he does get traded, you can bet the Flyers will get a solid return.
The Flyers also have a lot of cap space this summer and more opens in 2020 when Andrew MacDonald’s $5-million cap hit finally comes off the books. RFAs Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov and newly acquired UFA Kevin Hayes are the biggest free agents here, though keeping Hayes after picking up his rights would be a bonus at this point. Those two RFAs should be big parts of this roster moving forward — and although Provorov struggled in his contract season, make no mistake that he could very well be a Norris candidate down the line.
Just look up and down this roster and definitively say the potential pieces aren’t there. The top six is solid and gets better if Hayes sticks. Nolan Patrick hasn’t lived up to potential yet, but he’ll only be 21 when the puck drops on next season so there’s plenty of time. They pick 11th overall later this month, which could be used to pick up another good prospect, or flipped for immediate help. This is the main reason why the Flyers could emerge as a contender in the coming years — they have a good base from which to start and all sorts of flexibility to improve. What they do this off-season and next will be vital.
“We are aggressively looking in the trade market now,” Fletcher told NHL.com. “At the right time, we’ll certainly speak to every agent for a lot of free agents and see if there’s a fit, see if there’s players that want to come to Philly and if there’s the right fit for our club. The good thing is we’ve got the assets and the cap space, and sometime in the near future, we’ll make some good things happen, and hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Even with all that, the one player that puts them over the top in this regard is Carter Hart. The Flyers have struggled to find sturdy netminding since either Ron Hextall or Bernie Parent, depending on your outlook — but either way it’s been decades. Hart won the WHL’s top goaltender award three years in a row, but it was still somewhat surprising to see him first struggle in the AHL as a rookie pro, but then excel when he was promoted to the NHL anyway. He had a .917 save percentage in 31 games and should only get better from here. It’s an element this franchise hasn’t had in a while and given he’s arrived earlier than anticipated, you could argue it makes Philadelphia’s window more immediate.